When the setter Neyartha joined the Hindu crossword in 2008, it shook the placid solving pattern of THC solvers. Nits were picked, praise heaped, strong opinions aired. Not everyone loved his crosswords - but all agreed about one thing.
Neyartha's crosswords had personality. When we solved a Neyartha crossword, we keenly sensed the tastes and temperament of the person who created it.
A mirror of the setter's mind
Some setters tell us plenty about their likes and dislikes through their crosswords. It doesn't take long to learn that Anax is musically inclined and milks the most out of unexpected word meanings in his clues. Rufus's penchant for the cryptic definition is apparent, as is his nautical background. Cryptonyte is clearly a sports lover, Spiffytrix a film buff. John Halpern (aka Paul)'s puzzles carry the stamp of his unique brand of humour.
Not every setter is so conspicuous. Sankalak of The Hindu, for example, always a comfort to solve, does not put much of himself into his puzzles. There is also the case of setters having to abide by the standard "house style" of the publication, as with the Times crossword. This may come naturally to some setters, not to all. Talking of his puzzles in the Times, Anax says in his interview:
After a couple of puzzles that needed too much editing before being right for publication it was clear that my style was going awry. Remember, Times puzzles don’t appear under a pseudonym, so solvers don’t get that ‘signature’ feeling. It’s a house style, not an individual one, and it’s very easy to step outside the discipline that such a style demands.
What about preferences on more sensitive topics, like political inclinations or ethical views? Should setters keep those to themselves or let their crosswords reflect them?
The book Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8) talks of a special Guardian crossword set by Araucaria in 1994, soon after the first democratic elections in South Africa. The preamble to this crossword said it was "A tribute on election day to the fighters for democracy, especially martyrs such as 6, 16 and 3." The idea came to Araucaria late and he asked the editor to hold the back page for a special crossword. When asked why he did it, Araucaria replied:
These were people I thought Guardian readers should know.
This isn't just about wordplay for some setters, then; this is an expression of their values, their stand on issues that affect the world.
And why not, the setter may ask. If creating crosswords is an art, self-expression should be its prime function just as for writing poetry or painting.
How well are opinionated crosswords received?
The track record shows that extremely opinionated crosswords divide solvers into love/hate camps.
Guardian 24930 by Brendan is a textbook example. When this politically charged crossword was published in 2010, it received widely divergent comments ranging from "stunningly witty", "moving", "one of the best I’ve seen in more than thirty years of solving the Guardian crossword" to "bad taste", "one of the most unsatisfactory Guardian crosswords I’ve seen in forty-odd years"!
Over to you
As a solver, how do YOU like your crossword? Do you enjoy those in which the setter's self is overtly stated? Or do you prefer the setter to stay in the background, remain objective and let play of language reign supreme?
If you are a setter, what is your style? Are you mindful of personal tastes and judgements colouring your puzzles?
- Attention film-makers: Cruciverbalists are not oddballs!
- Unriddle the self-referencing setter
- Do you make these mistakes when writing clues?
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